Most of us have dreamt of winning an Olympic gold medal at least once, but very few have achieved this goal. Winning an Olympic competition is not just about the fame and glory, but also about the prizes. In fact, the first three classifiers, in addition to receiving semi-precious medals, also get generous cash prizes from their countries’ federations. Some of them become advertising heroes and are treated like celebrities. We tend to think that this is something typical of our times and that things have changed a lot since the Ancient Olympic Games. But is this true?
Prizes for the victors were a fundamental part of Greek athletics. In fact the word ‘athletics’ is even derived from the Greek word ‘athlon’, ‘prize’. Although the winners did not receive money at the Olympics, they were securing several other perks in addition to being worshipped as semi-gods by cheering crowds. More or less as they are today.
Only the winners had glory, whereas second and third classifiers were left with nothing but shame and dishonour. The winner received only a wreath made of olive leaves, but could place his statue at Olympia, in the holy sanctuary dedicated to the gods. However, they had to pay for and arrange this themselves.
The best was yet to come. Home cities granted their winning athletes a financial reward. In Athens, for example, the victorious were rewarded with 500 dracmas, the equivalent of a two-year salary of a skilled worker. Furthermore, they would get free meals and front-row theatre seats for the rest of their life. And a ceremonial parade when returning to their city.
In other provinces, victorious Olympians would also obtain a lifetime tax exemption; not too bad, but that’s not all. It was also common practice for home cities to commission renowned poets such as Pindar and Simonides to compose victory odes for the victorious athletes, so that their deeds would be known everywhere.
The host city could also grant an honorary citizenship to athletes. The best athletes collected several nationalities in this way.
Nowadays, most Olympic athletes enter the competition knowing they will never win against some of their most famous and rich colleagues. Indeed this is not their main motivation. As in fact Pierre de Coubertin once said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.